Sensory-based intervention (SBI) groups can be useful in schools and clinical settings to improve sensory skills, behavior and learning. SBIs are the guided use of sensory strategies to improve behavior by addressing specific sensory modulation or sensory discrimination challenges. It is important to distinguish occupational therapy utilizing SBI from (Ayres) Sensory Integration, which is a client led treatment following a specific child led protocol. SBI and Sensory Integration are both valuable but distinct interventions with unique research efficacy.
Sensory modulation is the ability to respond to functionally relevant sensory information while screening out irrelevant input. Simply helping students understand their sensory modulation and/or sensory discrimination differences is an important first step in SBI. Therapists can begin by discussing sensory modulation “energy levels” as low, medium and high, to help students identify when their energy levels are too high or low for behaving appropriately and learning. Consistently using the color codes from the Zones of Regulation program can help students gain a better understanding of how their arousal levels affect behavior.
Blue designates under-responsiveness to sensory input, while green depicts an optimal quiet alert state for behavior and learning. Yellow is slightly hyper-responsive, while red is an extremely hyper-responsive state that interferes with behavior and learning. Proprioceptive activities such as push ups can help some students lower their arousal level.
Once students can identify and modulate their energy levels, it is also important to consider if sensory discrimination disorders are negatively impacting behavior. When in the quiet alert state some students can still become dysregulated because of sensory discrimination disorders in which they have difficulty distinguishing, interpreting and organizing the information coming in from all their various senses. This can involve difficulty organizing pressure, touch, and movement. Sensory discrimination disorders can also involve interoceptive input causing them to be overwhelmed by feelings of pain or hunger. Sensory quiet areas or music/movement/mindfulness activities can help these students reorganize themselves so they are not overwhelmed.
It is important to help students learn to identify what they are feeling before they yell, hitting others or engage in problematic behavior “because they suddenly feel horrible”. For students with developmental challenges it can be helpful to combine feeling faces with the color codes from the Zones of Regulation so they can use pictures to identify their negative feelings and arousal level and get assistance with finding self-regulation activities.
SBI involves the use of individualized adaptive equipment to improve specific goal-directed behavior, such as reducing noise and visual distractions with a study carol and noise-canceling headphones to reduce peer conflicts and increase attention. It can also include massage, mindfulness activities, or embedded classroom tasks involving delivering a box of books for the teacher as a deep pressure movement break. The most important and often neglected step is to identify and educate students regarding their specific sensory challenges related to behavior, and to reinforce all efforts to self-regulate.